2016-09-02 / Front Page

South Portland to pursue solar project after delay

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – The tenure of interim City Manager Don Gerrish may last for only a few months, but his impact on South Portland could be felt for generations.

At an Aug. 22 workshop, the city council unanimously endorsed having Gerrish negotiate a contract with ReVision Energy to build a solar power array atop the 34-acre city landfill, located behind the new public works garage off Highland Avenue.

That contract is expected to land before the council for a formal vote at its Wednesday, Sept. 7 meeting and, if adopted, could impact city energy bills for the next 40 years.

City Planner Tex Haeuser has pursued the project for several years, but the council shied away from it at a 2014 meeting due to the anticipated $2.1 million construction cost of a two-acre array of between 1,500 and 1,600 photovoltaic panels. ReVision, which installed solar panels atop the city’s planning and development office in February 2013, said in a feasibility report compiled for the city at a cost of $12,500 that an array that size could produce 660 kilowatts of power – enough to offset about 40 percent of the city’s energy use.

The council did go ahead and issue a request for proposal to build the solar farm, receiving two bids, but rejected both in October 2015 as too costly.

Subsequent attempts to move ahead in partnership with Portland took a hit this past spring when an attempt to overhaul net metering rules, which regulate how locally produced energy use fed into the Central Maine Power grid, came up short of votes in the state Legislature.

However, ReVision is keen to keep Portland and South Portland holding hands on solar projects, because building both farms in tandem would allow it to knock more than $325,000 off total construction costs. As such, since the net-metering vote, ReVision has amended its offer, reducing the cost to the city for electricity generated at the landfill array, if built, from 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, to 10.5 cents.

Acclaim for ReVision’s new offer among city councilors at the Aug. 22 meeting was universal.

“I’m so excited to see this come back, I can’t even stand it,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “This is probably one of the most exciting things we’ve done in awhile in our community.”

“Financially, I feel like we’re in the best position possible to take on a project like this,” Councilor Patti Smith agreed. “This is really a legacy project that, in my mind, is one of the best projects you can give to a community.”

The latest offer made by ReVision marketing director Steve Henchman is for 2,960 solar panels, combined, between South Portland and Portland, which would generate 1.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That, Gerrish said, would offset almost 12 percent of South Portland’s annual electricity consumption – a lower percentage than the one state in 2014 because it also incudes power use by the school department.

Under the expected terms of the deal, South Portland would enter into a power sharing agreement similar to the one set up for the solar panels at the planning office. That agreement makes ReVision the owner of the solar panels – which it would build at a projected cost of $2.56 million – because the city, as a nonprofit, is not eligible for federal tax credits on the project.

“In order to bring the overall project cost down, the city would not take ownership of the solar array for at least six years,” wrote city Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, in a memo to the council. “Instead, the city would purchase the electricity generated by the system. In year seven, the city has the option of buying out the system at a reduced cost. At this point the project would be cash positive and pay for itself annually because energy savings would exceed the cost of debt service and operations and maintenance.”

According to Rosenbach, the new 10.5- cent per kilowatt cost for energy from the solar farm offered by ReVision would be subject to a 2.5 percent “annual escalator.” After seven years, South Portland would get a chance to buy the solar panels outright for $1.6 million. It would take 11 years to recoup that money from savings over current electricity rates, Rosenbach said. The panel purchase would be funded by a 20-year bond, at an assumed 3 percent interest rate.

The city stands to save $3.3 million in power bills over the 40-year life of the solar panels, Rosenbach predicted.

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